Recovering the Natural Wealth of Our Rivers

By Chris Wood

In early 2019, while helping the Department of Natural Resources to stock trout in a stream, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said, “We dump a bunch of fish in one hole, then drive to the next big hole and dump a bunch of fish and hope they will disperse. It’s not a very good way to do it. What if the truck showed up with four guys and they all carried buckets of trout up and down the stream, dropping two here and three there until the whole stream was stocked.”

The Department of natural Resources followed up on the governor’s directive the next week.

The thing we want most as anglers is opportunity. We do not need a guaranteed trout because a hatchery truck just dumped it in our fishing hole. We want to know that around the next bend is another fish, and the combination of skill, guile, and especially, habitat, might lead to a fish on the line. But, as the Governor points out, we want to see trout distributed across the stream, not just gathered into a few pools closest to road crossings.

That is what happens on hundreds of West Virginia streams. The DNR does a great job, but nobody “stocks” trout streams better than Mother Nature.  West Virginia is blessed with thousands of miles of high elevation trout streams with cold and clean water where trout naturally reproduce. These streams will continue to produce stream-born trout—for free—in perpetuity because they are equipped to withstand the challenges of development, increasing stream temperatures, more frequent flooding and prolonged droughts.

Not all of West Virginia’s streams produce an abundance of wild trout, and so stocked trout from hatcheries will always play a role in certain rivers in West Virginia. But what drives anglers to the Mountain State is the chance to catch wild and native fish that are born and raised in West Virginia’s streams, not released from a hatchery truck after being raised in concrete tanks.

And we have the chance to make our wild and native trout streams even better. There are unneeded dams and perched culverts that block fish from swimming upstream.  Streams cleared of vegetation have lost shade, making the water warmer and leaving streambanks prone to erosion that muddy the water.  Some streams have fewer deep pools, or not enough fallen trees for fish to hide behind. Brook trout, however, are remarkably resilient creatures, and given half a chance they will respond to restoration projects that fix these problems. Furthermore, the DNR’s native trout reintroductions provide additional hope for West Virginia’s future fisheries.

Trout Unlimited, the DNR and other partners have been hard at work improving native trout habitat. Consider the case of the Greenbrier River. Over the past several years, Trout Unlimited has worked with the state, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service to restore about 100 miles of the Greenbrier on public lands open for all of us to fish. Anglers now report 70-80 fish days on restored sections of the river—practicing catch and release, of course.

70 fish days? Yup.

In addition, we have worked with over 400 farms across the state to help recover trout streams in the headwaters of the Potomac, Greenbrier, Lost, Cacapon and Gauley Rivers. Now, as these watersheds improve, it is not uncommon to find 15-inch native brook trout.

In many parts of the state, it is a lot cheaper to help recover a stream that is capable of supporting wild and native fish than it is to stock streams every year. By improving our streams so they are better able to support wild trout, stocking our streams wisely, and avoiding redundancy by not stocking fish into thriving wild trout streams that don’t need them, we can maximize our trout fishing opportunities.

Gov. Justice is right to promote West Virginia’s extraordinary angling opportunities. Fishing in the state generates more than $580 million in total economic output every year. With continued investment in restoration of its native and wild trout, that number will only grow.


Note:  This story was originally published in Troutmagazine, the publication of Trout Unlimited.